Review: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

Who’d a thunk it? 21 installments into a series and, far from being a return to a comfort zone, Sue Grafton’s latest effort is something of a departure from the routine. As the book opens private investigator Kinsey Millhone is asked to do a day’s work by a young man, Michael Sutton. When he was six years old he saw two men burying something in the woods and, due to a recent newspaper article, he now believes they may have been burying the body of Mary Claire Fitzhugh, a four-year-old child who was kidnapped in 1967 and has never been seen since. Kinsey soon learns that it’s not as clear-cut as Michael thought but, as always, she doggedly nuts out all the facts and builds her case.

With respect to the doggedness of Kinsey the book is as familiar as an old cardigan but the surprising element for me was that Kinsey’s is only one of several stories that unfold in this book. In addition there’s a thread that takes place in the 1960’s featuring people who may, or may not, have had something to do with the kidnapping of the young child. The person who features most strongly in that thread is a woman called Deborah Unrah whose grown son returns home greatly changed by the flower power movement and drug culture of the 1960’s. There’s also a parallel thread to Kinsey’s in 1988 featuring a middle-aged man called Walker McNally who is a rather repugnant alcoholic. These two characters, and several others who orbit around them both, are deeply and perceptively depicted as their colliding stories are told.

In some ways the ending of the book is fairly predictable but this book isn’t the same kind of procedural as its predecessors and relies less on that kind of suspense for its drama and conflict. Instead I was gripped by Grafton’s exploration of a single concept across all the disparate threads. All of the stories, even Kinsey’s own, relate in some way to the notion of family and the myriad ways that concept can manifest in society. This book is really about why things happen rather than what happened and it’s this that is something of a departure for this series.

Grafton is one of the few authors whose books I have read in order roughly at the time they were published and due to familiarity breeding a little contempt I have tended, of late, not to look forward to them with the same anticipation that I once did. However this outing shows that Grafton still has her story telling abilities well to the fore and she is not afraid to take the risk of trying something new. Apart from discovering anew that 69-year-old Grafton is still at the top of her game I’ve also been reminded that some authors stay on the best seller lists because they are good, not merely because they have great publicity machines.

I would highly recommend the book to both Grafton’s fans, who will have just enough of the familiar to satiate their needs (though not enough Henry for most I admit), and those who have never read Grafton before because this, more than most of her other alphabet tales, is a standalone book of the highest quality. All of the niggly things about the series (such as Kinsey’s failure to age and the ever-increasing gap between the technology available to Kinsey and that available to the rest of us) really take a back seat in this installment because here stories with undercurrents are all that matter.

I can also recommend to audio book fans the added treat of listening to Judy Kaye’s excellent narration which really did make the long-ish book simply fly by.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating: 4.5/5

Narrator: Judy Kaye, Publisher: Random House Audio [2009], Length: 14hrs 5mins, Setting: California, USA 1960’s and 1988.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

On the day ‘U’ was released Sarah Weinman’s article based on her interview with Sue Grafton appeared in the LA Times and a Q&A by Carol Memmott also appeared in USA Today.

U is for Undertow has been reviewed at Lesa’s Book Critiques, Book Dilettante and Reviewing the Evidence but if you’re looking for a negative perspective you’ll have to trawl through the Amazon reviews and even then you’ll have to look hard.

The only other novel in this series that I have reviewed here is T is for Trespass which received the same rating for vastly different reasons.

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This entry was posted in Audio Book Challenge 2010, book review, Sue Grafton, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

  1. Dorte H says:

    I have also thought they were growing a bit too familiar lately so it is great to hear she still has something up her sleeve 😀

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  2. Bernadette – It’s certainly unusual for a writer to have something really fresh in a series after 20 books; I’m impressed that Sue Grafton does. I like her Kinsey Millhone very much, so I’m glad this one doesn’t disappoint.

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  3. AF Heart says:

    This Review was featured on my Blog Carnival.

    You may see the blog carnival here:

    http://mysterysuspence.blogspot.com/2010/01/mystery-crime-fiction-blog-carnival-for.html

    If you – or other bloggers you are aware of – have appropriate posts for future blog carnival editions, you may find more information including how to submit specific posts here:

    http://mysterysuspence.blogspot.com/2009/11/special-announcement-carnival-coming.html

    Thank You,
    AF Heart

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  4. I gave this book a good review as well though I haven’t read many of Grafton’s other books in the series.

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  5. mary jo says:

    Please explain to me if Sutton was lying about the dates of the kidnapping or if the sister was on the level.

    Why did the 2 kidnappers steal the dog and bury it. What was the purpose?

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    • Donna says:

      I”m with you. The two questions you raise is the reason I am looking at reviews. I was wondering why I missed those things.

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  6. I read the book in a day and enjoyed it.

    The story and plotlines move along quickly. I didn’t find that it was farfetched and enjoyed how it bounced from the 60s to the 80s (Kinsey’s current time).

    I’d definitely recommend it, especially if you are a Grafton fan and/or a fan of mystery novels.

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  7. Carolyn says:

    I have read Sue Grafton’s A through U, and I must state that I was very disappointed in her ” U Is For Undertow”. She has changed her style in this book, and I found out I was out of my comfort zone with the following:going back and forth in years, too many charactes for such a nowhere plot, and the ending was un-eventful. I hope Ms. Grafton goes back to her original style of writing.

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  8. Mary Jane says:

    I loved this one. U is for Undetow. I thought she had so many more elements working. I have read ones of hers that did disappoint me but i thought this book the culmination of her growth as an author. I liked her description of Jon’s high school teacher telling him how to write. And I think that very thing, lively feelings are what resonate for me in this book. Isn’t this the first time she has done a sex scene as unbridled as it was. It gives new meaning to Brillo pad. Destiny was such a revolting character but I sure had feelings about a lot in this book.

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